Independence or Bust: In Conversation with Aaron Draplin
As the ranks of designers continues to swell year-by-year, the ability to differentiate yourself from the pack becomes more challenging. We’re taught from early on in art school or other training to develop a “signature style”, do things on our terms, and to stand apart from our contemporaries. Yet, the commercial arts, when looked at as an industry, operates from a very homogenized space. We use the same software, we learn and apply the same techniques as our neighbor, we build systems designed to save time but that make everything look the same, and we all drink from the same social troughs, sharing the same set of listicles as the next guy.
Despite the standardized nature of tools/techniques there are individuals who manage to pull away from the group–forging new paths on their own terms. They realize they have to grow beyond what everyone else is doing to set themselves apart. They develop and hone their vision through experimentation and years of hard work.
Aaron Draplin is a designer who has forged his vision of what a design career should be, while staying true to himself. Self-described as “ferociously independent”, it only takes a few minutes of talking with him to understand what that means. Draplin has taken his career and studio, Portland-based DDC, and created an environment that thrives on choice–choice of client and choice of project. We managed to get a few minutes of Aaron’s time to talk a bit about his career, his successful lecture series Tall Tales from a Large Man, his upcoming book, and his thoughts on what it takes to be independent in your design career.
I’m punched in the face with ideas all the time.
Your “Tall Tales from a Large Man” series has been really popular over the past couple years. How has the talk evolved and what have you learned or adapted during this series?
The “who, what, when, where” is always the same since the first show. The “why” keeps on evolving, as do the weirdo projects and happenstance moments. I like sharing this stuff. I’m still just sort of freaked out that people even want to hear it, all these 214 shows later.
The format is a bit different from what we might normally consider a “conference talk”, “lecture”, whatever. It’s infinitely more personal. Was that intentional, and if so, why?
It is? And, of course it is. I’ve been lucky to go to a lot of conferences and design shows, and man, I’ve sat through some pretty lackluster talks. here’s the deal: If you are going to get up there and do it, you might as well do it and make it worth everyone’s time. And, hell, have some fun with it. That’s the way I felt with the first one in 2009, and the one a couple nights back in Kansas City. A chance to show my whole little life, and just let it fly. I’m so proud to share it. Each and every time. Too personal? Well, thank goodness. Think about how many feel a little too “by the book”…yawn!
You’ve established yourself as a designer who is forging his own path and outlining a career on your own terms. What does it mean to you to be “ferociously independent” as a designer?
I am in a lucky, lucky position to be able to choose the clients I work for, and, buck everything and just work on my own stuff. I make the calls. I worked my ass off for this privilege, and never take it for granted. When the big guys call, I can hang. When it’s my scrub buddies, making their record cover, they know precisely who I am. My goal is to enjoy my life. And work. And projects. And maybe just maybe, make a shitwhack of loot along the way.
Going one step further, is that something all designers should strive for, and what is your advice for developing an independent mindset in your career?
I meet folks who thrive in the office/agency/group environment. The structure, the emails and all that red tape. For me, I was freaked out by how much time was blasted away. Scared me. So I jumped out and used my time as ferociously as I could. 13 years later? I’m never going back!
One thing I’ve explored with several designers relates to the skill sets that are important in these changing times. There is a big push for designers to develop a strong interactive side to their work. As a practicing graphic designer (and one that does not primarily focus on interactive work), what are the skillsets you think a designer should be focusing on today?
Being a good communicator. Everything is going faster and faster. I don’t know how someone can dabble in all of it. That said, if you are a designer and need help building a site, you need to be able to communicate effectively, stay on top of emails, and hold the experts to it.
During your upcoming WebVisions workshops you’ll discuss some of the processes the DDC uses day-to-day. How do you approach new work and keep things fresh when approaching a project for a new client?
It all comes down to what is appropriate for the project. And that changes from job to job, and each one is a challenging, little puzzle. That randomness is enough for me. I apply my same little techniques, and let the client and spirit of the project steer me. Often, I’m surprised with what we come up with. There’s some magic to be had there!
A big part of your personal exploration of design comes from looking to the past, collecting artifacts, ephemera and “junking”. Why is this important to you as a designer? Does this all come from a nostalgia for a bygone design era?
There’s a lot of graphic lessons to be found in a junk store. How to use type. How to use restraint. How to use one color. How to use a ton of color. Just tons and tons of incredible, down-to-earth decision making that you don’t and won’t see on the daily design aggregators. Or, in Adobe Illustrator. With such a big internet, I’m freaked out by the sameness I keep running into over and over. The same Star Wars remixes and “Fuck Haters” word marks. So predictable. One afternoon on the World’s Longest Yard Sale and you’ll be inspired for a decade!
I know you use several different mediums to capture inspiration–camera, sketchbook (Field Notes, of course), etc. Why is it important for a designer to constantly be capturing/collecting/cataloging inspirational sources?
I’m punched in the face with ideas all the time. And if I’m sitting in the car, at some light, waiting for Portland turds to turn, I don’t want to lose it. So I’ll grab my iPhone and make a little recording and send it to myself. Done. Captured. Same thing in my Field Notes. It’s important to know how to look, too. It’s a big world and shit’s going fast and you could miss stuff if you aren’t looking. I’m always looking. And, rescuing it for my own bad purposes. I don’t like being shut off from stuff. Too isolated. I like to look, think, wonder, collect, hoard and use the stuff I find or shit I think up. It’s a weird, little art to know how to grab it all.
Your have a book coming out in May (which is awesome) entitled, Pretty Much Everything. What was the drive behind releasing a monograph, and what can we expect to find once we get that in our hot little mitts?
No real drive. They called me, and I was floored to get the call up to the big leagues. My first reaction was to pass. I mean, was I ready? Did I have enough work? And, shit, a book? So weird. I owe John Gall so much. He pushed me over the edge into it. Thanks, John!
Despite your feelings about “web designer speak”, from a design and strategy perspective, what do you think is missing from the web and how we interact with design?
Clear paths of doability. Everyone’s an expert, until it’s time to actually build the stuff. Then the excuses start. I guess I’m just talking about how to build the sites. I’ve had my little heart broken way too many times with web developers. More worried about showing off the code to fellow developers than the fuckin’ things actually working. Sorry about my French. Know your limitations, and design around them. Simple, right? Should be. Funny how it isn’t. Know what you can do, and then do it. And well. Done.
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Aaron Draplin is a designer based in Portland, Oregon. Through his design studio, the DDC, he creates stuff. Good stuff. His upcoming WebVisions Chicago & Portland talks, Tall Tales from a Large Man, will explore Aaron’s multi-faceted work; while his workshops, Behind the Scenes with the Draplin Design Co.: Tips, Tricks, Triumphs, Threats and Turds, will explore some of the DDC’s processes.